Electronic Hardware Startup Tips: From Idea to Manufacturing

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: June 7, 2023  |  Updated: May 18, 2024
Electronic Hardware Startup Tips: From Idea to Manufacturing

AI, smart devices, proliferation of high compute to the edge, and ubiquitous integration of just about every electronic devices have put us solidly in what some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The history of the past two decades of technological development is one where the barriers to entry into market have never been lower, including for innovators who have never built a piece of hardware. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we still see so many hardware innovators coming from other fields, including software engineering and development.

If you have a great idea you've sketched on the back of a napkin, how can you turn that into a real piece of hardware and, eventually, into a fully packaged product that you ship off to customers? With a napkin sketch and a roadmap, your startup is well on its way to success.

In this article, I want to run over the process startups must implement to ensure they can get their product into production while carefully managing their budget and risk. The risk factors startups face in the hardware world are very different from those in the software world, but an understanding of the design and manufacturing processes coupled with business constraints on hardware companies will help innovators get their product past the finish line and into the market.

From Napkin Sketch to Scale

The transition from a concept on paper to physical product you can sell to a buyer passes through four broad stages. Every design should start with a proof of concept that proves the feasibility of your intended functionality, user experience, and end application. Eventually, after some effort dedicated to prototyping and design optimization, you get a product that has been qualified for volume production.

Proof-of-concept

Can be built from dev boards, evaluation modules, and single-board computers/MCU boards

Functional prototype

Major components are compiled into a custom PCB so that the entire design can be qualified in the envisioned environment

First production run

Similar to a beta release - the design is optimized for an initial product release to select customers

Scaling

After compiling feedback from customers and implementing final changes, the design is put into higher volume with a CM/EMS

 

Most proofs-of-concept will look something like the hodgepodge of boards stacked together with edge slots and pin headers as shown below. This type of setup is fine for experimenting with an embedded application or for qualifying parts for a custom design, but it's nowhere near what your custom product will look like.

Startup development board prototypes
Development boards often stack together as shown here, which allows you to experiment with parts and an embedded application. Image source: Hackster.io.

Proof-of-concepts give an innovator a chance to experiment and prove that their idea holds water. It's also a chance to narrow down specifically to the components that will appear in the final product. It's during the transition to a functional prototype where things start to get risky. If you know the hardware development risk and the business risk, you can avoid wasting money on your startup development expenses and ideally get to scale faster.

Risk Factors for Startups

Thorough investigation of functionality during the proof-of-concept stage helps to de-risk your prototype. When you move into the prototyping stage, the risks start to mount for your product. There is no single strategy to reduce the risk of failure, wastage, or losses during prototype development. Inevitably, something will go wrong, and it’s better to find out about it during prototyping when the potential losses are much easier to deal with.​

From a business standpoint, some of the biggest risks that prevent scaling have less to do with the PCB design and more to do with supply chain, logistics, and management:

  • Schedules - Product design can take longer than anticipated, or manufacturing runs can take longer than anticipated. This is where project management skills will pay off and help you get through each phase of product development before your competition.
  • Parts going out of stock - Although the industry is coming back into surplus in 2023, many parts are still going out of stock or have very long lead times. Talk with sales teams at semiconductor vendors before you finalize your main components.
  • Manufacturability - If you’re not familiar with the PCB manufacturing process and DFM, then it’s best to find a consultant or design firm that can help you complete your prototype design.
  • Competition - If you have a great idea for a product, someone else might have the same idea. Make sure you protect your IP, file the required patents, and manufacture in a location that enshrines data protection.

Unfortunately, there is no single methodology to reduce all these risks. I talk about just-in-case supply chain a lot, but this is just one method to manage inventories and deal with parts issues; it does not address the other challenges of management and scheduling.

The ultimate risk underlying all of this is a failed (unusable) design or a non-manufacturable design. This would spell doom for your prototype or product, and then it's back to the drawing board. Take account of these risks by looking at the above points and consider worst-case scenarios, learn about the manufacturing and procurement process for electronics, and learn how to spot a reputable manufacturer so that they can consult with you on the best design decisions for your product.

PCB manufacturing
The right manufacturer will have more than just a good track record.

 

Ready to Scale?

Once the design has been qualified with customers, in the field, and through reliability tests by your EMS/CM, it's time to begin scaling and focusing on the business side of the equation. Your manufacturer can assist with the optimization and sourcing process for volume orders, beginning from lower volume runs up to sustained volume production.

Scaling at this stage involves both building your internal teams (sales, marketing, customer support, applications engineering) and scaling your production volume. Make sure your CAD tools and data management systems can help you instantly recall your design and documentation so that you can maintain your products with the newest technologies.

Whether you're planning to produce your own boards, or you're looking to hire a design firm to assist with your product development, make sure your designs are built using the world-class CAD tools in Altium Designer®. To implement collaboration in today’s cross-disciplinary environment, innovative companies are also using the Altium 365 platform to easily share design data and put projects into manufacturing.

We have only scratched the surface of what’s possible with Altium Designer on Altium 365. Start your free trial of Altium Designer + Altium 365 today.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2500+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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